Commercial development surged in Colorado Springs during the early ’90s, bringing the same strip malls and chain stores that rendered mid-sized cities virtually indistinguishable across the nation.
Efforts to combat that ubiquity led to the formation of the Downtown Partnership of Colorado Springs’ Art on the Streets program in 1999. The program’s first endeavor was only two blocks long and included 24 sculptures from artists throughout Colorado, but the exhibit’s economic impact belied its size.
“Public art contributed heavily to the revitalization of the downtown area,” said Claire Swinford, who now heads the Art on the Streets program as the Downtown Partnership’s director of urban engagement. “It was on an unsustainable path in the ’90s and now it’s booming. Public art has changed the way [visitors] use this area.”
Roughly 7 percent of Colorado’s more than 270 towns and cities have public art programs, according to the latest list compiled by Colorado Creative Industries.
So far, though, Colorado Springs has relied on organizations like Art on the Streets to seek funds through grants and donations from nonprofits. Despite an existing collection of nearly 100 works of public art, the city has no sustainably funded program to create new artwork or dedicated staff to assist with such a program, said Matt Mayberry, cultural services manager for the city and director of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum.
However, Swinford and other local art enthusiasts hope the city’s first Municipal Public Art Master Plan — slated to go before council members later this year — will establish policies that allow the Springs to tap into the economic potential afforded by public art.
“We want to be more intentional about how we look at public art, how we solicit new public art — in general, how the collection grows and evolves,” Mayberry said. “There is a pent-up demand in the community — a desire to see more public art around. We need to figure out a mechanism to do that.”
The municipal arts plan arose in response to PlanCOS, the comprehensive, citywide master plan approved last January by council members, Mayberry said.
“Public art played a role in that. There was a stated goal to figure out, ‘Where do we want to go as a community?’” he said. “We are now taking that step.”
Mayberry and the city’s department of parks, recreation and cultural services have been working with the city’s public art commission and other stakeholders to evaluate Colorado Springs’ current processes and policies, he said.
“We wanted to take a look at the current status quo and assess the city’s collection as it currently exists — Where do they come from? What are they? What does that tell us about the nature of the collection right now, and what are some near- and long-term goals that can help keep the plan moving once it’s implemented?” Mayberry said. “What’s the best way to not only care for the collection we currently have, but to grow the collection in a responsible and creative way that adds to the overall economic and social climate of the community?”
From June to September last year, a Denver-based consulting team — contracted through the city using funds raised from a variety of sources, Mayberry said — gathered input through interviews, focus groups and city events to encourage discussion and input to guide the planning process.
Mayberry and his staff have been making recommendations on how the Springs can best utilize models that exist in similar cities to figure out what role the city can play in establishing and distributing public art.
“When I talk about the plan, that’s what I’m referring to — what role does city property or city right of way or park land play in public art, as a location or as ownership?” Mayberry said.
“Not only making sure a program would be sustainable in the long term, but also how are these pieces created from Ground 1? How are they established financially from a conceptual perspective?” he added. “Oftentimes art pieces will come to us fully formed. Are there other ways where the public can have more input into what a sculpture or mural might look like?”
Another big question is precisely what role the city will play in the creation and maintenance of public art, and how that role will be funded, Mayberry said.
“I think from our perspective, because we’re charged with maintaining it, that’s a key interest to us,” Mayberry said. “If [public art] is part of the city’s inventory, it is our job to care for it. Do we want to change that dynamic so it’s not just reliant on donations? Do we want to incentivize the creation? If you have funding, what happens with it — is there a staff position related to public art, or is funding available for development or only maintenance?
“We just don’t know yet, but those are the kinds of things we’re looking at.”
Public art projects have significantly boosted cultural tourism in other cities, according to “Why Public Art Matters,” a paper pubished in 2018 by national nonprofit Americans for the Arts.
Two examples: “The Gates” in New York’s Central Park, which brought an estimated influx of $1 billion; and the Bay Area Lights on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, conservatively estimated to have added $97 million to the local economy.
“We’ve been behind the curve for so long as a city, and this is our chance to jump out ahead in terms of integrating public art in how we as a city function,” Swinford said. “There is a strong ethos of not only reflecting local culture as it already exists, but also bringing art to areas that don’t have it.
“In the past, art goes where art is funded, so there are concentrations in areas like downtown and Manitou Springs and Old Colorado City,” she said. “With the city dipping its toes in the water, there’s all of a sudden a strong ethos or mandate to bring art to Colorado Springs.”
Public art is especially crucial in the face of rapid economic development that shows little signs of slowing, Swinford said.
“There is more outside development in Colorado Springs now than there has been in decades,” she said. “Most developers are coming in with the expectation that they need to enhance their property in an artistic way.”
A citywide survey conducted last summer in preparation for the master plan revealed 96 percent of more than 800 respondents considered the arts a priority for themselves and their families, Swinford said.
“I think that challenges a lot of assumptions people might have about their neighborhoods or about the priorities of our city,” she said. “It’s really encouraging to be headed into this new decade, celebrating the sesquicentennial, and realizing that Colorado Springs founders considered arts essential to the city’s identity and well-being… arts are still valued by citizens.
“No matter which ZIP code or income demographic you look at, people say that the arts matter to them. They say public art is among the top three things they like to show visitors as being emblematic of who we are in the city.
“That’s enormously encouraging, and anybody who reads that news and is surprised by it should feel good about what that means for the future of our city.”
A draft of the Municipal Public Arts Master Plan will go before the Public Art Commission at the end of February, and the commission will ultimately make a recommendation to council, Mayberry said.
“We are hoping no later than May” for council’s approval, Mayberry said. “Then we’ll get to work implementing it.
“We believe — and we think the data is there to support us — that public art helps to create community identity. It supports a sense of place and the unique nature of a community so that communities don’t feel cookie-cutter. There is economic value to that.”